Need for high-speed internet improvements among topics during virtual meeting of I-68 Regional Alliance
CUMBERLAND — As telework and virtual learning grow across the region, the need for high-speed internet must be a priority.
That was one of the topics discussed at the I-68 Regional Alliance virtual meeting Friday.
The event focused on five counties in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania that are joined by Interstate 68, and included U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin, Chris Van Hollen, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito.
Local officials that participated included Garrett County Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Nicole Christian, Frostburg State University President Ronald Nowaczyk, state Sen. George Edwards, Mineral County Chamber of Commerce President Randy Crane and Cumberland Mayor Ray Morriss.
“This is a unique part of America and we recognize that,” Cardin said. “We’ve got to make sure there’s economic opportunity consistent with the character of this part of our country.”
Capito and Manchin are “the two best examples” of bipartisan teamwork, Cardin said.
“We really do work together,” he said and added that successful collaboration brings projects to fruition that can benefit all three states.
“We recognize that tourism is critically important to the region,” Cardin said.
COVID-19 has created challenges, however.
“The tourism industry is not what it used to be and it’s not recovering at … a healthy rate for investment,” he said. “That affects the stakeholders and tourism in the five counties that are part of the regional coalition.”
Cardin talked of negotiating in the Senate the next round of economic relief.
“We want to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity to help where you need help coming out of COVID-19,” he said.
Manchin touted assets in the region, including Potomac State College, IBM, Northrop Grumman and “some of the best trout fishing in the world.”
However, the area desperately needs economic development, he said and added that a lesson learned from COVID-19 is that telework will be a productive and cost-effective part of the future job market.
“I think it’s going to change how we operate,” Manchin said.
Capito said the region’s rural atmosphere offers a “selling point” for potential workers.
“I think we have a real opportunity here in the land of COVID because … we can create job opportunities in a different way,” she said. “People for their own health are going to want to go to a sparser populated area where the threat of transmission of any kind of pandemic … becomes less daunting.”
Strong infrastructure and excellent educational resources will be key for the region’s economic development, she said.
As telework increases, high-speed internet connections must be a priority, Van Hollen said.
“This is a huge issue of course” for schools, colleges and small businesses, he said. “It was an issue in this region before the pandemic and it’s even a bigger issue now.”
Van Hollen also talked of the need for workers to have affordable housing in the region.
Al Delia, chairman of the I-68 Regional Alliance, said FSU, Allegany College of Maryland and a private company have teamed to submit a proposal to the Department of Labor to create a remote work center on the FSU campus.
“We would train people and educate people on what they need to do to (work from home) and actually help match companies that would accept remote workers with the skills and talents and tools that we would provide for those people in the area,” he said. “It would be for people who have work skills but are underemployed (or) unemployed.”
Jennifer Walsh, executive director of the Greater Cumberland Committee, which hosted the meeting, asked the senators to continue scheduled talks in the future.
“Over the last year we had Maryland State Highway (officials) commit to quarterly meetings and that has really turned into this incredible tri-state opportunity … to come together and really work through the issues,” she said.
“It’s a good suggestion,” Cardin said. “We’ll follow up on that.”